Innovation in understanding soils

How a breakthrough in soil analysis could change our food systems for the better

Soils are vital for our food, health and planet. ©Zocchi Roberto/


Soil: it grows the food that nourishes us, provides us with space we live on and even helps protect and control our climate. But unfortunately, soils are under pressure. Population increases, higher demands for food and changing land uses have degraded around 33 percent of our global soils. Now, we need innovative solutions to ensure we can protect them. 

The Global Soil Laboratory Network (GLOSOLAN) established in the framework of FAO and the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) has made great leaps towards this goal. For the first time since the discovery of spectroscopy technology, institutions and experts from around the world are now joining efforts through a global programme to use this technology to support decision making on soil protection globally. The initiative is being supported by founding members, including FAO-GSP, the United States Department of Agriculture, the World Agroforestry Centre, Innovative Solutions for Decision Agriculture, ISRIC - World Soil Information, the Woods Hole Research Center, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Sydney, with hopes for even more partners in the future.

So, what is soil spectroscopy?

Soil spectroscopy is a fast, cost-effective and environmental-friendly technique that uses the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with soils to estimate soil properties such as the levels of acidity, organic carbon, nitrogen and water retention. These determine the health and usability of these soils.

Technicians at the first meeting of the Regional Soil Laboratory Network for Africa ready to analyse samples. ©FAO/Lucrezia Caon

How can soil spectroscopy change the course of our soils’ future and keep them healthy?

1)    Help countries understand soil conditions to improve agricultural productivity and reverse land degradation 

One of the key outcomes of the initiative is the development of a global soil spectral calibration library to support countries in understanding of soil condition. This is a key factor in improving agricultural productivity and reversing land degradation. The online library is a major advance in rapid estimations of soil condition and sustainable soil management for improved food security and environmental management.

The initial collection for the library contains high-quality soil spectral reflectance and measured data for over 80 000 soil samples. Spectral reflectance measures how much energy (as a percentage) a soil surface reflects at a specific wavelength, which is then used to identify different soil properties. From this, a soil’s condition and quality can be analysed.

This library will continue to grow as participating countries provide samples for spectral and conventional analysis, meaning countries can use this data to rapidly characterize their soil conditions and help protect them.

This centralised and standardised spectral reflectance library will be freely available to laboratories around the world. In addition, the library will soon support a free and easy-to-use soil property estimation service where users can submit their soil spectral data and come out with a suite of estimated soil conditions and properties.

2)    Improve soil assessment, mapping and monitoring

Knowledge is power. Soil spectroscopy has enormous potential to arm countries with invaluable information on its soils through assessment, mapping and monitoring to allow them to swiftly take decisions and protect soils more effectively. More importantly, this tool is not only fast and accurate, but it is cost-effective too. This means it can benefit countries even if they have limited funding or laboratory resources. The library will improve evidence-based decision-making, allowing countries to manage their soils more sustainably. This is complementary to conventional soil laboratories techniques and can become an important alternative. This will contribute to food security and nutrition, provision of ecosystem services and improving climate adaptation and mitigation.

3)    Support scientists and governments and increase international collaboration

The GLOSOLAN is a result of a unique, international collaboration led by FAO’s Global Soil Partnership. For the first time, more than 400 labs in 127 countries are working together to harmonise data and methods for soil analysis so that soil data and information is comparable and interpretable across laboratories, countries and regions. The collaboration also intends to enhance the capacities of laboratories for better data quality.

Soil spectral reflectance helps identify different soil properties, which tell about its condition and quality. Healthy soils are the basis for food and agricultural production. ©FAO/Ronald Vargas

The initiative on spectroscopy will help countries to build capacities in areas such as soil sample selection, soil preparation, spectral measurement and quality assurance of the data analysis. This will allow scientists and governments across the world to implement better measures to ensure the sustainable management of soil resources. GLOSOLAN facilitates networking and capacity development through cooperation and information sharing between soil laboratories with different levels of experience.

The GLOSOLAN brings countries together and unites them to achieve one goal: the protection of soils across our planet. This, in turn, will boost food systems, improve livelihoods and even help combat climate change – making great leaps towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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